The DOs and DON’Ts on how to treat your law clerk
In March 2007, I landed my dream law clerk job. A sole-practitioner had just opened her practice in December 2006 and needed immediate assistance. It’s safe to say that before I started clerking, I had no idea what I was doing or what exactly a law clerk was. All I knew is that I had a plenty of past administrative experience and, having completed my first year of law school, I had at least a basic knowledge and understanding of legal research and writing. However, I definitely had never worked in a law office—in fact, there isn’t a single attorney in my entire extended family. So I was a blank slate and eager to learn and soak everything in.
At this time, I have been working in that same firm for over two years and have definitely acquired more practical knowledge there than in three years of law school. That being said, through my experience and through the experiences of my peers, I have also acquired a short, practical list of the DOs and DON’Ts on how a law clerk should be treated.
1. DO lay-out and stick to a job description as much as possible. A close friend of mine once complained to me that the partners of her firm asked her to answer the phones one afternoon when the receptionist had to leave for the day. She said, “That is not party of my job description.” My experience as a clerk was unique when I started – I was both a law clerk and a receptionist. In addition to learning how to write motions and pleadings and figure out how to handle a real estate contract, I was also answering the phones, communicating with clients and other attorneys, and performing all other administrative duties. Unlike my friend’s experience, this was never a problem for me because I knew what tasks were expected of me when I started the job.
2. DON’T underestimate your law clerk. In most cases, your law clerk is either still in law school or has just finished law school. Of course, this means the law is still fresh and memorable, and your clerk has learned (or is learning) to think like a lawyer and outside the box.
3. By the same token, DO give your law clerk challenging tasks. Your clerk works for you and wants to make you look good. At the same time, your clerk is dying to prove herself and what she’s capable of. Have your clerk draft motions, pleadings, contracts, complete complicated legal research, etc. Don’t be surprised when your clerk goes above and beyond the call of duty and hands you a too-detailed motion or a four-inch stack of legal research. This means she’s taking her job seriously.
4. If your clerk is a student, DON’T forget that school is her number one priority. Try to be sympathetic to her class schedule, final exam schedule, and class work-load. After all, once she finishes school and passes the bar, you and your clerk will then be peers.
5. Most importantly, DO be a mentor for your law clerk. Her ultimate goal is to be an attorney and practice the law, and you will have a great impact on what kind of attorney she will be. DO take your clerk to court, closings, and meetings. DO praise your clerk and offer positive reinforcement for a job well-done. DO try to impart all your good habits, and point out the bad habits she should avoid. Your clerk is a sponge and is probably willing to work late on a Friday night or come in on the weekends so she can learn as much as possible and figure out what it takes to be a successful attorney. A good mentor is more valuable than any course book or class she ever took in law school.
This list is hardly all-inclusive, but it provides a foundation for all the other “DOs and DON’Ts” that exist. These are the things that I want to remember when I’m a practicing attorney with a law clerk and that I hope to remind other practicing attorneys who may have forgotten what it’s really like to be in the clerk’s shoes. Being a clerk can be incredibly stressful, but is also a rewarding and educational experience. Needless to say, I’m so grateful for this time and have attorney Heather M. Fritsch to thank for this opportunity. ■